The Stranglers formed in Guildford, England in 1974, tastefully naming themselves after a bunch of recent news stories about people who’d been strangled. In 1975, they established their classic lineup of Hugh Cornwell on guitar and vocals, Jean-Jacques Burnell on bass and vocals, Dave Greenfield on keyboards and vocals and Brian “Jet Black” Duffy on drums.
Then, in 1990, Hugh Cornwell left the group and was replaced by a singer named Paul Roberts and John Ellis from the Vibrators on guitar. Ellis stayed in the band until 2000 when he was replaced by Baz Warne. That lineup lasted for another six years until Paul Roberts left and the band returned to a four piece.
The group began as a keyboard driven, punky rock band with a multitude of influences, getting weirder as they progressed. They rode the punk rock ship until the end of the 70s before moving on to a more sophisticated, synthesizer oriented pop rock sound and then then completely turning to commercial synth pop during the 80s. Thankfully, in the 90s, they reverted back to a more rock oriented approach and have been releasing albums since.
That’s their history. The group members also earned themselves a reputation for being violent, sexist brutes; allegations that were not helped by Burnell’s violent tendencies or the group’s at times sick lyrics. However, now they’re just another group of old guys who continue to make albums and tour – except that they didn’t come to my city when they toured the States last, bastards.
Rattus Norvegicus – United Artists – 1977
The Stranglers’ debut LP is one of the most unusual albums to have been lumped with the rest of the records to come out of the punk rock class of ’77. While most punk bands utilized basic 1-4-5 chord progressions and Chuck Berry leads, the Stranglers were seemingly influenced by ‘66 era, keyboard driven garage bands such as the Seeds or the Standells along with a healthy dose of Ray Manzarek inspired, circus organ.
The songs are primarily constructed around Jet Black’s bouncy 4/4 rhythms and Jean-Jacques Burnell’s simple yet catchy bass lines, over which Dave Greenfield plays melodic and whirling keyboard lines and Hugh Cornwell primarily plays basic bar chords, throwing in a lead every now and then for good measure. It’s also noteworthy that the bass is mixed louder than the guitar. But what’s also noteworthy is how damn tuneful every song on the album is, making it even more unusual when contrasted against Cornwell’s and Burnell’s singing voices.
While Burnell tends to just sing like a typical, angry punk rock punter, Cornwell sounds like a creepy old, British man. Ever heard the song “Peaches” from Sexy Beast? That’s the one with the catchy bass line that goes, “bum-bum-bum ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum” and the lyrics that go, “walking on the beaches/looking at the peaches.” Song is great but damn, Cornwell just sounds like such a sleazy old man. The contrast between the group’s sublime, catchy music and Cornwell’s singing style is even more extreme in the group’s “Light My Fire” tribute “Sometime” – complete with Robby Kreiger inspired guitar and Manzarek inspired keyboard parts. Hugh Cornwell sounds like an absolute creep when he sings “you’re way past your station/it’s useless asking you to stop/I’ve got morbid fascinations/beat you, honey, til you drop.”
Indeed, it’s lyrics like that along with the ones in “Princess of the Street” – “she’s the queen of the street/what a piece of meat”- and “London Lady” – “making love to the Mersey tunnel/with a sausage/have you ever been to Liverpool/please don’t talk much/it burns my ears/tonight you’ve talked for a thousand years” – which got the group branded as misogynist pigs, a claim they refuted, stating simply the lyrics are meant to be silly and absurd. And it’s tough to really take a band too seriously when they’ve got such bizarre tunes as “Ugly”, about a guy who takes acid and watches someone’s face melt.
But, briefly, let’s get back to the music – mostly keyboard drenched, 60s garage influenced rock with punky singing with a couple noteworthy exceptions. Aforementioned “London Lady” qualifies as straightforward punk rock. Likewise aforementioned “Princess of the Streets” is slow, sleazy sounding burlesque music. “Down in the Sewer” is an eight minute, multi-part epic which combines the group’s Doors influence with something Blue Oyster Cult might do with the hard rock riffs and the epic keyboard parts. And if you’ve heard their uplifting, toe tapping hit single “(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)”, then you should have a pretty good idea of what songs like “Goodbye Toulouse” and “Hanging Around” sound like.
No More Heroes – United Artists – 1977
Although a few of the songs on No More Heroes were recorded during the sessions which produced the first album, it seems that, after supporting the Ramones on a number of European dates, the Stranglers saw the way the wind was blowing and punked up their sound. On many of the songs, Hugh Cornwell’s guitar is mixed louder than it was on the first album and he plays more straight-forward, distorted bar chords. Several of the songs are also a bit faster than the ones on Rattus Norvegicus .
Lyrically the group is also more “punk”, with Burnel shouting snarky lines such as “bitching, why don’t you all go get screwed” and “don’t you like the way that I dance? Does it bug you?/ don’t you like the cut of my clothes?/ don’t you like the way I seem to enjoy it?/ stick my fingers right up your nose.” No joke, lyrics like these sound great shouted atop the circusy keyboards!
Elsewhere the lyrics deal with a variety of topics ranging from personal tales of people they know, a bizarre mistaken identity situation, literary and political homages and flat-out, dirty old man grossness disguised as absurd humor. Also, apparently “I Feel Like a Wog” did not ingratiate the group among the “rock against racism” crowd even though they’ve always denied any allegations of racism. I believe ’em!
Anyway Dave Greenfield makes his vocal debut on No More Heroes as well. He sings in a kooky, “SCARRRY” voice with trilled Rs and the two songs on which he sings are the weirdest on the album. “Peasant in the Big Shitty”, for instance, is heavy on the moogy synths and proggy solos – not very punk!!! Otherwise his keyboard tones alternate between the expected 60s/Doorsy and modern/Kraftwerk/Devo-like, using the latter to create all kinds of weird, futuristic noises, especially in the clanking, repetitive, robotic closing track, “School Mam.” Too bad it’s about a teacher who has sex with the children in his classroom.
On a final note, as much as I love the songs and sounds on No More Heroes, I can’t but help think that some of the humor or “humor” is too gross to pass off as Monty Python-esque absurdity, as the group claims. Just because Hugh Cornwell uses a robotic vocal effect on “Bring on the Nubiles” doesn’t excuse the fact that it has the line “I’ll kiss your zone erogenous/there’s plenty to explore/I want to lick your little puss/and nail you to the floor” or that “English Towns” has the line, “there is no love inside of me/I gave it to a thousand girls” or the entirety of “School Mam.”
Oh that’s no good. I can’t end the review on such a negative note. How can I bitch about an album that has songs as righteously, kickassingly good as “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes”? That’s crazy!
Black and White – United Artists – 1978
Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Won’t you? Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Don’t you? Unfortunately “Shut Up” is not on Black and White but they include it as a bonus track on the reissue!!!
The third Stranglers LP Black and White is a bit harder, noisier, faster, artier and more conceptual than either Rattus Norvegicus or No More Heroes. It’s also almost as good as the two albums that preceded it. The group has pretty much abandoned sex and sleaze for snarky humor, cold war paranoia and more personal tales and literary homages – such as Burnel’s homage to fascist Japanese writer Yukio, which we will let slide.
If Rattus Norvegicus had a mostly 60s vibe that bordered on punk and No More Heroes punked up the sound with faster tempos, then Black and White is punk with a futuristic twist. Dave Greenfield still plays plenty of noodly, busy and circusy keyboard parts on most of these songs but goes even further with the robotic, Kraftwerky sounds and weird noises. Closing track “Enough Time” even spells out a message in Morse code!
Mostly Black and White is still mainly punk or at least, up-tempo driving rock. In fact, “Hey! (Rise of the Robots)” is so fast that I would say it borders on hardcore! It does seem like the group has also worked a bit more on the arrangements as well.
It’s not all punkiness, however. “Nice N’ Sleazy” – in which the group tells the tale of a run-in with some Hell’s Angels – is another bass driven, dub type song like “Peaches” or “Dead Ringer.” “Outside Tokyo” is in waltz time if I’m not mistaken. “In the Shadows” has a hypnotic, lurching bass-line and some eerie guitar riffs to add to the “what’s that in the shadow” atmosphere of the song. And “Do You Wanna” is a herky-jerk, stop/start oddity that sounds like it’s trying to make you feel dizzy and like you want to throw up.
The reissue includes some neat bonus tracks as well: “Mean to Me” is a speedy “pub rock” song. “Walk on By” is a lengthy Bacherach and David cover, whose solo goes on too long. And “Shut Up” is a 56 second punk song that freakkin’ rules!
Live (X-Cert) – United Artists – 1979
Although it was initially the record label’s decision to release it, the Stranglers view their first live LP, Live (X Cert) as the cap on their original punk period before turning into a mature, synth-driven pop/rock band. On Live (X Cert), however, they sound like an energetic young group, making music for similarly young people to bop around to.
To be sure the band pick up the tempos on songs like “(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)”, “Dead Ringer”, “Burning Up Time”, “Hanging Around”, “Sometime”, “London Lady” and “Goodbye Toulouse” thus making them sound punkier than their original album versions. Well okay, “Burning Up Time” and “London Lady” were already punk but, on here, they’re even faster.
The original Live (X Cert) contained 12 songs but I’m listening to this wicked reissue, which has been expanded to include seven extra tunes. My only issue is that “Hanging Around” is on the CD twice for some stupid reason when they could have picked a different song like say “Nice N’ Sleazy”, “Something Better Change”, “No More Heroes” or “Peaches” for goodness sake! Those are like their best songs! No disrespect to “5 Minutes”, “Go Buddy Go” or “Mean to Me” but these are merely good songs and why include the goodwhen you can include the great?
At the risk of copying another, popular cult music reviewer, I don’t know any other way to describe the track list aside from naming the albums the songs come from. Live (X Cert) contains five from Rattus Norvegicus (not counting both inclusions of “Hanging Around”), five from No More Heroes, four from Black and White and four single tunes.
Interesting stage banter from Huch Cornwell – the only member who says anything – includes addressing rowdy audience members, telling people to go to a benefit for those who went to jail during the Silver Jubilee celebration and, on two occasions, kindly imploring young punks to stop spitting on them. In fact, Hugh Cornwell is surprisingly polite when saying “I don’t like being spat at. Maybe you get off on it” and “it’s good to know you’re reading the news of the world and spitting like young punks should be”.
Interesting musical tidbits include stopping “Dead Ringer” right after starting the song in order to address said rowdy audience members and starting “Curfew” with the first few bars from “Enough Time.” Also, for some reason, they decided to have “Do You Wanna?” and “Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)” on the same track.
Otherwise the group play the songs exactly as they appeared on the albums and/or singles with all the lovely circusy organ and/or echo piano, whirling bass lines, distorted guitar chords and little solos and fun, bopping rhythms to get yer blood pumping. The live sound is clear enough even if the drums sound a tad bit thin.
It’s still a fun enough record but to be perfectly honest, this is more a release for hardcore fans than novice listeners. I mean, how can you start a Stranglers collection without “Peaches”, “Something Better Change”, “No More Heroes” or “Nice N’ Sleazy”???
The Raven – United Artists – 1979
I guess most people familiar with the Stranglers consider The Raven their first attempt at a more mature sound; replacing the faster, punky tempos and shouted vocals with a calmer, more stream-lined approach. Indeed Hugh Cornwell and Jean-Jacques Burnel are doing more singing than shouting with Burnel especially having replaced is angry punk voice with a new, higher singing style rendering him nearly unrecognizable as the Burnel of old. Greenfield also doesn’t sound quite as kooky and I could barely tell his voice apart from that of Cornwell’s.
Hugh Cornwell primarily plays catchy little note runs or non-distorted chord progressions while Burnel continues to play those catchy as hell bass lines even though his bass isn’t as prominent in the mix. But giving the songs their true depth and weirdness (musically at least) is Dave Greenfield who is employing all types of new, futuristic, Kraftwerky sounds on that keyboard of his, the most interesting of which is the midi/video game tone found on “Nuclear Device.”
Like their other albums, strength of The Raven comes from the hooks, melodies and interplay between the guitar, keyboard and bass. And, with the exception of the carnival like, 3/4 opening track “Longships”, Jet Black sticks primarily to straight-forward, bouncy beats.
As far as the tone and theme of the songs, they range from the good time, happy cheer of “Duchess” to the depressing, heroine themed piano dirge “Don’t Bring Harry.” Elsewhere you’ve got a weird tale of traveling Vikings, some classy whorehouse intrigue, a cynical attack on the of people Los Angeles utilizing the words “plastic peaches” and the line “he’s never seen the shit/from the La Brea pit”, an homage to cocaine, a Celtic sounding song about eugenics and a couple political lampoons – one about trading nuclear arms and the other about the Shah selling oil to the Brits.
But the weirdest moment on the album goes to “Meninblack”, which is about aliens, who not only created the Earth and all its life, but are returning to their creation to use all life forms either as food or slaves. The song uses electronic percussion, spacey sounds and echoey, helium pitched vocals and would become the central theme for the group’s next record.